Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mark 3:16

So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

In this list of the disciples, more of the disciples’ nicknames are given than in any other listing of the disciples throughout Scripture. We read about Simon’s new name, Peter, “The Rock;” we see James and John were called “The Sons of Thunder.” Simon here is “the Zealot,” the revolutionary; and Judas is “Iscariot,” literally “Judas the dagger-man.” Even Thaddeus is thought by some scholars to be a nickname meaning “big-hearted.”

Some of these names were picked out by Jesus; some nicknames, like Simon’s, were apparently his before joining the disciples. Some were probably given in hindsight, after the death, like Judas.

Yet all of the nicknames are meaningful, revealing something of the character of the person. These are not silly nicknames like sportscasters make up now, clever plays on words. They are designed to prove a point about a person’s character. Impetuous Simon becomes a rock. James and John become the kind of people who offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy those who would not receive Jesus (see Luke 9:54). Judas was indeed an assassin, a dagger-man.

If a nickname were chosen for you, something about your character at its deepest level, what would it be. Would you be known as The Thinker? The Jaded? The Pensive? The Encourager?

Most importantly, would it be a nickname you’d be proud of? Imagine Judas before his foolish betrayal of Christ: a new disciple, sincerely seeking to follow Jesus, giving his life to this man’s thought and teaching. Now imagine his disappointment at how history turned out: Peter turned out to be “the Rock,” and he turned out to be “The Dagger-man.” He never could have imagined in his fresh-faced idealism that his nickname would be a source of shame instead of honor.

Would your nickname be a source of honor? How would you be known? How will you be remembered?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Matthew 3:16

First in a series--see the post below.

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

It would be quite the reassuring sight to see what Jesus and the crowds saw on that day: the heavens opened, as if the great globe of the sky were torn apart and a dove, descending, landing, and settling on Jesus.

One could not help but feel completely sure that Jesus was who he said he was, that he was touched by God in a unique way for the special ministry he had, indeed that he was God walking the earth. After all, stuff like this doesn’t happen every day.

In a skeptical world, sometimes we might wish for a similar revelation. Why don’t the skies open over Christian churches, with a giant Finger from heaven pointing at the church buildings, and a Voice saying, “Go there—this is where people speak the truth?” Wouldn’t people believe then?

Here is a radical thought: that same Spirit that “alighted” on Jesus lives in us. Jesus himself prayed that we would receive the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit’s power would be in us. And if indeed the same Spirit is in us, perhaps He can be as visible to the world through us as He was through Jesus.

Perhaps the Spirit was most evidently on Jesus not when the Spirit descended like a bird, hovering over his head. Maybe the Spirit was most obviously on Jesus when he was healing lepers, preaching with power in the synagogues, giving sight to the blind and confounding and revealing through his parables.

We can’t snap our fingers and make the heavens open to show the world that the Spirit of God exists.

Instead, it is up to us to show others the power of the Spirit in the same way Jesus did: healing, loving, truth-telling, calling a broken world to a new way of living, all empowered by the Spirit.

If God’s Spirit is in it, that can do more to show people that God is real—more even than the heavens opening, more than a dove descending.


Hi all! In this space over the next weeks, I’ll be posting a series of devotions on 3:16s of the New Testament. You probably know the famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This verse is justly famous because it encapsulates the Good News God has for us in just a short sentence.

You may not know some of the other 3:16s of the Bible, though, but there are some very interesting verses that give a lot of insight into the person and mission of Jesus, the role of Scripture, and the ministry of the church.

Out of the New Testament’s 27 books, six do not have a 3:16: Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude are only one chapter long, while chapter 3 in 1 Timothy and Titus are shorter than 16 verses. So there are 21 3:16s, and I’ll be posting a devotion on each of them right here over the next weeks and months. I’ll be posting at least one per week except weeks when I’m out of town. I pray this series gives us all some insight into the various books of the New Testament and what God would have us see in each!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, May 21

Hi all--the text for this morning was from Acts 10, the story of Peter's vision of the unclean animals descending on the sheet, and the subsequent story of Peter's sermon to Cornelius and the descending of the Holy Spirit onto the Gentiles.

Hope it's meaningful to you!

This long story marks a real sea change in the book of Acts. In part, we know this because of the amount of time Luke devotes to telling the story. When Jesus walked the earth, he made very clear that his mission was not to all the people of the world, but to a specific group of people, the people of Israel. In one of the more famous (and somewhat disturbing) stories in the Gospel, Jesus sees a foreign woman who asks him to heal her child; and Jesus refuses her, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” When she asks again, he says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” At which point the woman says, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” And then Jesus heals her.

Jesus’ language in that story sounds harsh, but it underscores the reality of how Jesus understood his mission: it was to the people of Israel. It had ramifications on all people everywhere, over all time, including us; no doubt Jesus could foresee the day when his message would be for all the world. But there was a real sense in which his was a reformation of the Jewish religion in a very specific people-group.

Now the book of Acts which we’ve been in for the past few weeks is the story of how the ministry of Jesus became the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the church. And at first, it follows the same trajectory of the ministry of Jesus. The ministry is to the Jews; not just those who are ethnically from Israel, but those who had already chosen to worship the God of Israel and to take the step of becoming full Jews, being circumcised, and keeping the Jewish law. For example, at the beginning of Acts, in the story of Pentecost, we read, “There were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem; and each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” And Peter goes on to preach to the crowd, but it is a Jewish crowd. In the story we talked about last week, about Philip and the African eunuch, the African eunuch had taken the step to become a full Jew. And throughout the first nine chapters of the book of Acts, we see the church dealing in a Jewish context.

But now there is this story of Cornelius. And Cornelius, while he was among the class of Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel, had not taken the step of becoming fully Jewish. He had not submitted to circumcision, nor had he agreed to keep kosher. And so good Jews knew to keep away from Cornelius, because he was not fully clean. He was a good guy, beloved by the Jewish people, but he was not fully clean. And being around someone not fully clean could threaten their own purity. Peter was no different; this was just the way the church understood its mission.

But Peter has a vision, a vision that must have been very vivid. He is up on the roof of the home he is staying in, observing the noon hour of prayer traditional to Jews. And he becomes hungry as he’s up there, and he calls down to the host and asks that something be prepared for him. And as it’s being made, Peter falls into a trance and he sees a sheet coming down from heaven and the sheet filled with “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” And a voice (the voice of God) says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And Peter objects, saying these animals are unclean. We might find Peter’s response quaint and provincial, but there’s no way we modern Americans can understand the revulsion Peter would have felt. His whole life long, Peter has understood that his essential goodness is tied to what he has eaten. To touch or eat these animals would make him unclean, unable to be in God’s presence. To hear these words, to be commanded to eat these animals, would be like if we thought we heard God telling us to harm someone else. We just couldn’t imagine that it would be God saying this–which is, of course, what Peter felt.

Of course don’t know exactly what animals were in the sheet; but most animals that were considered unclean then are animals we don’t eat today, with the exception of the pig. Leviticus chapter 11 contains a list of many of the unclean animals for eating, including the camel, the rock badger, the hare, shellfish, eagles, vultures, ospreys, buzzards, ravens, seagulls, owls, cormorants and bats, geckoes, mice, weasels, chameleons, etc. Any or all of these animals may have been on the sheet that descended from the skies. And Peter says, “I can’t eat these.” But the voice says to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” If God says something is clean, it is clean. And if God says something is clean and you say it’s unclean, then you basically are telling God that he is wrong. And that’s just not a wise thing to do. And then it happens again and again, three times in all, and Peter is so confused. What does this mean?

Well, at that point, Peter hears the Spirit of God again, and the Spirit says to him, “look, three men are waiting for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” And so Peter does this, and sees the men and they say that they are from Cornelius, and that an angel has told Cornelius to send for Peter, so they would take him to Cornelius.

The next day, they get up and go together, to the house of an uncircumcised Gentile. Peter was taking the most revolutionary stance in the book of Acts, willingly going into a place that thousands of years of history told him would make him unclean. And as they’re walking up, Peter begins to understand the vision he has had. He sees that this really isn’t about food, after all; it’s about people; and no person is unclean who God has called clean.

Cornelius tells Peter that God wanted him to come here, and so Cornelius wants to hear what Peter has to say; and Peter has a lot to say. Peter preaches a sermon; and he says that there was a message that God sent to Israel, that there could be peace by Jesus Christ. And then he goes on to tell them about this Jesus: that he went about doing good and healing, that he was put to death, and raised on the third day; that he appeared to the disciples; that all who believe in him will receive forgiveness on the day he comes to judge the earth. In short, he gives a very short, very basic understanding of who Jesus was and what he has done.

And while he was still speaking, before he could even finish, the Holy Spirit fell on the whole room. And the circumcised believers were amazed that God’s Spirit had come upon even those who were considered unclean. And they were then baptized.

One of the statements in Peter’s sermon pretty much sums up the lesson he learned. He said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” God does not look at a person’s nationality; instead, in every nation, those who fear him and do what is right, are acceptable to him. This, to Peter, sums up the crux of his vision and also sums up how God feels toward the Gentiles.

When I was a young boy, I would often watch the evening news with my mom. My mom was rather a news junkie, but this was before the days of the Internet in homes, and in our house we didn’t even have cable, and so for national news, it was pretty much 6:30 in the evening, me, my mom and Dan Rather. We didn’t have a VCR for a long time either and so my mom didn’t even have the option of taping it. We watched the news when it was on.

And I was a young boy watching the news during heady times. Those were days deep in the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust seemed a real possibility. It seemed genuinely possible that the US and the USSR may any day blast each other off the face of the earth, and in so doing, threaten human life itself. And what used to fascinate me was when you’d watch the news and you’d see pictures from Russia. And it all looked so different, so foreign–their joyless-looking leaders; the way their army marched in locked high-step, dark gray against the slate-gray skies and coal-gray buildings; the accents of Russian speakers; even the letters of the alphabet–they say it says USSR but it sure looks like CCCP to me!

It looked gray and foreign and menacing and utterly removed from my colorful life in small-town America. And its very foreignness scared me; it was different than what I knew. And so I would long to see on the evening news a re-assuring picture of America: of President Reagan smiling, of a much-younger Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney assuring me it was going to be OK and America’s mission would go forward.

In retrospect, I realize how much their American-ness reassured me. It wasn’t that I really understood the situation, understood the philosophical differences underlying the situation. Instead, I saw the world very simply–good guys and bad guys, and I would long to see something American because I knew that when I saw an American person, I would see a good guy, not a bad guy. The gray foreigners might scare me, but those who looked like me and acted like me were the good guys and they would prevail. It might sound simplistic, but that’s the way I thought. If they looked and sounded like me, they were the good guys. We Americans were clean; the Russians were unclean.

Sometimes I think that much of our society acts the same way I did when I was a young boy. We have labels that make us comfortable–for example, liberal, or conservative. And everyone we meet we try to see if that label fits them or not; if it fits them, we let them into our lives. If it doesn’t, we put them out of our lives. If I’m a conservative, then, I look for other conservatives, and I convince myself that those who are not conservatives have nothing to teach me, and I don’t need to listen to them. If I’m a liberal, I look for other liberals, and if someone doesn’t fit that label, they have nothing to teach me. People who wear the label I wear are clean; people who don’t are unclean.

And along comes this extremely powerful passage of Scripture and it pushes us to think differently. The overwhelming message of this passage is that you can’t tell the good guys and the bad guys by the way society labels them. You can’t trust every liberal that waltzes down the pike, nor can you trust every conservative. You can’t trust every Baptist, every Catholic, every progressive, every evangelical, every American, every protestor, every soldier, every flag-burner, just because they happen to be wearing a label you happen to trust. In every one of those labels, there are those who are living acceptably in God’s sight and there are those who are not living acceptably in God’s sight. In Christ, all those labels are rather out the window because Jesus abolishes those kinds of distinctions.

And yet we know the power of labels in this world. We go out of our way to get desirable labels and avoid undesirable labels. We know that if we get the wrong label on us, there are consequences. For example, when I go on to finish my doctorate, there will be many American Baptist churches that will not want to hire me. Why? Because they presume that preachers with doctorates are eggheads who can’t communicate with congregations. That may be true of some people with doctorates, but not of all. Just the same, on the other hand, there will be some churches that never would have given me a second glance before, but when I get that degree, then all of the sudden, they’ll think I just might be ideal for their church because it might be prestigious to have a minister who has a doctorate. In reality, though, the only way anybody could know if I was a good fit for their church is not because of a label I wear but because we met each other, and decided together if it was a good fit.

The story of Peter has everything to do with labels. He understood that certain people, the Jews, were in just because of the label “Jewish” that applied to them. Certain people, namely Gentiles, were out because of the label “Gentile” that applied to them. But Peter sees that God has a system beyond labels. God is not about putting labels on people and ruling them in or out by the labels they have.

However, it also is important to see that this does not necessarily mean that everybody is “in” with God. God certainly loves all people, and hopes that people will live in a way acceptable to him. But it is important to see here that God has a different way–a way beyond labels--of determining who is right and who is wrong. God’s system is summed up in Peter’s statement: “I now see that God shows no partiality but that those of every nation who fear Him and do what is right are acceptable to him.”

These are the criteria in the sight of God–this is how we become acceptable to Him. Not by wearing the right labels, but by fearing Him (that is, holding Him in reverence) and by doing what is right.

Now, of course, we all say this but none of us really believes it. Much of our lives are spent trying to prove ourselves “clean” in our own eyes and in the eyes of other people. From the time we are very young, we are fashioning labels for ourselves. We fashion an identity for ourselves that we wish to wear: the music we choose to listen to, the clothes we wear, the words we say, the words we don’t say, the foods we eat and beverages we drink. We spend tremendous amounts of time and energy on these things that we believe give us identity; we spend a tremendous amount of time on our labels.

The Christian should be so careful about this. When we take inordinate amounts of time and energy to choose labels and project our identity to the world, we miss our chance to claim the greatest identity in the world–one who worships God and does what is right. When we get so hung up on our labels or on other people’s labels, we miss a chance to be what God truly has made us to be.

Let’s talk about an example which might help me to make my point more clear. Say you go to a new church. If you’re anything like me, when you go to a new church, labels are really on your mind. You want to wear the right labels for that church. So you want to wear the right clothes. You want to say the right words. If they’re a church that keeps their Bibles open during the sermon, then you want to do it too; if they’re a church that doesn’t crack the Bible and just listens to it, you want to do that too. You want to wear just the right labels.

But you know what? If you worry too much about your labels, then you might just miss what God has for you. If you’re looking around, trying to fit in, then you just might miss a word that God wants for you to hear that morning. Much better to go, be the person you truly are, and if you don’t quite fit in, that’s OK; your concern should not be with your labels, but with becoming the kind of person God wants you to be.

Of course, it’s not only people who visit churches who are worried about labels. Often, churches themselves are too worried about labels. Often, we have a sense in our mind of what kind of church we are, and we put labels on ourselves. We’re a traditional church. We’re a contemporary church. We’re a progressive church. We’re a liturgical church. We’re a stained-glass church; we’re not a stained-glass church. And you know what’s funny? When we get our back arched about things at church, when we get upset about something, 99% of the time, it’s not about fearing God and doing what’s right–it’s about labels! Most church conflicts are because someone has one set of labels on the church and someone else has another and the two threaten each other and fight.

God’s will for the church is to be such a different place–the one place where labels are thrown out, where no one is declared clean or unclean. It is not to be a place that worries about labels at all–instead, it is a place that thrusts us forward and pushes us lovingly, relentlessly, to the important things–fearing God and doing what is right. The church does not respect labels, especially when they become idolatrous, when we worship them instead of God. Instead, the church is to make us re-think every label we put on ourselves and cast them all aside in the name of following Christ.

Do you see how radically different this is than a world with labels? In a world of labels, our heroes are people like Rush Limbaugh and Stephen Colbert, people who are brash and bold and funny and defend our labels. But in this other kind of world, our heroes are people who fear God and do what is right, ordinary people who seek God with all their hearts and chase after him no matter what. In a world of labels, we rush around, trying to get the right labels, trying to belong to the right clubs, trying to define ourselves, stake out our turf, and defend it at all costs. But in this other kind of world where labels are meaningless, we take all of that time and energy others spend on labels and we spend it on worshiping, honoring God, and doing what is right. Live that way and see if we don’t see the Kingdom of God becoming a reality on earth. Living a life without labels frees us from the need to worry about others’ perceptions of us and lets us spend our precious time on something more important–fearing God and doing what is right.

Yes, living a life without labels is freeing. But it also is demanding. Because the essence of being a Christian, the essence of being “clean” in God’s sight, is not wearing the right labels. It’s not singing the right songs or buying the right books or speaking the right language. It’s not dressing a certain way or conforming to a certain lifestyle. It is so much harder than that. If you have come looking for an easy gospel, I cannot give it to you and neither can Peter. It is easy to wear a label; it takes little time to pick one out and put one on. But it is all-consuming to fear God and do what is right. To have a passion to fear the Lord and do what is right will reach into your heart and turn everything upside down. To fear the Lord and do what is right will be an adventure that will demand to be at the center of your life or, in truth, you will not be living it at all.

You can take a label and stick it on your old self, to cover up what you truly are. But to fear God and do what is right means that you will be transformed from the inside out; at your very core you will be a different person than you ever have been before. And yet this is the kind of transformation it takes to truly be living the life God has for us to live; this is the adventure to which we have been called, the overhaul of our spirits.

May God give you grace always to fear Him and to do what is right.